There’s nothing more important to the quality of education in the Lawrence public schools than the classroom teachers who have contact with students every day.
Considering the important role they play, most Lawrence teachers probably should be paid more than they are. After several years of relatively small increases in their salary and fringe benefit packages, most teachers probably deserve the $1,500 salary boost being sought by negotiators for the Lawrence Education Association.
The unfortunate truth, however, is that the timing of the teachers’ request is a little off. The financial challenges facing the Lawrence school district make this a difficult year to give teacher salaries a sizable bump.
Negotiators for the teachers know they won’t get what they don’t ask for so you can’t blame them for trying. The question is whether it makes sense for the district to tap into the funds teachers have identified to cover the cost of salary and benefit increases.
The contingency fund that teachers have targeted now totals about $6.8 million, but the district already is proposing taking $750,000 from that fund to help fill the budget hole it expects for next year. Among other things, that money will help preserve the number of teachers hired by the district.
The teachers’ proposed salary increase, without considering benefits, extra duty pay and other factors, would cost the district about $1.4 million. The district probably could take that much from its contingency fund this year, but how about next year and the year after that? If the district could reasonably expect to be able to replenish that contingency fund next year, it might make sense to borrow from it. However, current economic and political factors make such a turnaround an iffy proposition.
It probably doesn’t make the teachers feel any better, but many, many people in the private sector are sharing their pain. Over the last five years, combined salary and benefit packages for Lawrence teachers have risen between 1.5 percent and 4 percent. That’s not a lot, but it’s more of a raise than many private sector workers have seen. Private businesses have had to pare employees, reduce benefits and lower salaries. Those staff reductions have forced many remaining employees to take on additional duties without additional pay.
With expected state funding cuts, the district doesn’t have a lot of flexibility. Unless the board is willing to take the questionable course of borrowing heavily from reserve funds, the only way to find more money for teacher salaries is to take that money from other places. After several years of budget cuts, it’s hard to find cuts that wouldn’t have an impact on classroom instruction.
Although it continues to face tough salary competition from some neighboring districts, the Lawrence district has a history of providing solid salary increases for teachers when funding allows. The district should continue to do what it can, but this isn’t the year for a substantial, if any, boost in the salary and benefits package.